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When Helen Cruz pitched her tent in a city park a few years ago and made it her home, she chose the location for one reason: She wanted to be close to the houses she cleans for a living but could never afford for herself.

“People see the irony of it,” said Cruz, 49. “I never looked at it like that.”

What Cruz didn’t realize then was that living in a park in Grants Pass, Oregon, would place her in the middle of a national debate that will reach the Supreme Court on Monday about whether cities can respond to a spike in homelessness by punishing homeless people.

In the most significant appeal involving unhoused Americans to reach the high court in decades, the justices will hear arguments Monday on whether ticketing people who live on the streets is “cruel and unusual” and violates the Eighth Amendment.

The case is being watched closely by city and state officials who are uncertain how to respond to a surge in homelessness and encampments that have cropped up under bridges and in city parks across the nation. It’s also being followed by people who live in those encampments and are alarmed by efforts to criminalize the population rather than build shelters and affordable housing.

“Nobody wants to be out here,” said Cruz, who has since moved into a church where she also serves as a caretaker. “We know the parks are for family and children. The thing is, we have no place to go. There’s no housing.”

Cruel and unusual?

Between 2022 and 2023, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased 12%, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development report in December.

On any given night, that study found, more than 650,000 people in the United States are unhoused – including roughly 40% without adequate shelter.

Grants Pass, a city of 38,000 people in southern Oregon, responded by intensifying enforcement of anti-camping ordinances that bar people from sleeping in public with “bedding,” which can include sleeping bags or bundled-up clothing. The city says the prohibitions apply to everyone – not just the unhoused.

Critics say the only people pitching tents on sidewalks are homeless.

The debate about whether the ordinances apply to a class of people or to prohibited conduct will feature prominently Monday. A 1962 Supreme Court decision found that a California law that criminalized drug addiction – as opposed to drug possession –amounted to a “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

“I can see where the policymakers are coming from. I just think that it’s so broad to say we’re going ticket you for just simply existing,” said Mary Ferrell, executive director of the Maslow Project, a nonprofit that works with homeless children in Grants Pass. “The sense on the ground is that the city just doesn’t want people experiencing homelessness – period.”

City officials argue the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment was aimed at torture or hard labor sentences imposed by 18th century kings, not tickets handed out by police. Homelessness, they say, is a challenge in terms of public safety and health, not a constitutional matter for courts to decide.

“The solution,” lawyers for Grants Pass told the Supreme Court, “is not to stretch the Eighth Amendment beyond its limits and place the federal courts in charge of this pressing social problem.”

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the city, holding that it could not “enforce its anticamping ordinances against homeless persons for the mere act of sleeping outside with rudimentary protection from the elements, or for sleeping in their car at night, when there was no other place in the city for them to go.”

A 2019 study found 602 people who were homeless in Grants Pass and another 1,045 individuals who were “precariously housed,” according to the plaintiffs. Meanwhile, the city has extremely limited shelter space.

“There is no difficulty in determining that the people who were living outside in Grants Pass were doing so because they had nowhere else to go,” said Ed Johnson at the Oregon Law Center, who represents the plaintiffs.

The case has put some government leaders in a delicate position. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, told the high court last month that people experiencing homelessness shouldn’t be criminalized, but he also warned the justices against a broad ruling that could tie the hands of government in dealing with encampments.

“There is no compassion in stepping over people in the streets, and there is no dignity in allowing people to die in dangerous, fire-prone encampments,” Newsom told the court in a brief that sided with neither side.

The Biden administration has tried to walk a fine line, too. It is urging the Supreme Court to block Grants Pass from “effectively criminalizing the status of homelessness,” but it also suggests the matter should be returned to a lower court for a case-by-case analysis of whether the individual people ticketed, in fact, had nowhere else to sleep.

Cruz described receiving so many tickets that she’s still struggling to pay them off more than a year after she moved out of the park. She’d receive a ticket, she said, and then have to pick up her belongings and move. Each violation of the ordinances carries a $295 fine, which increases to more than $500 if not paid.

After two tickets, police can order a person to avoid a park for 30 days. Anyone who violates that order can be sentenced to 30 days in jail.

For Cruz, the ticketing felt like harassment, an effort to nudge people experiencing homelessness out of the Grants Pass entirely.

But she said, “I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not gonna let anybody push me out.”

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